Black Friday in a hardscrabble town

Black Friday is like any other day in Phillips, Wisconsin.

Nestled between the lakes and northwoods birch trees, Phillips is a hardscrabble town of 1,675 souls who by on summer tourism, winter hunting, and a lot of grit — the kind of people you meet in the songs of Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger. My family and I arrived here Thanksgiving day and holed up in an ice-bound cabin that evoked inevitable comparisons to The Shining. As my wife and daughter built snowmen near a frozen lake, the consumerist in me wondered how this quiet little town treats the holiday shopping rush while the rest of the nation wallows in 3:00 a.m. store openings, eager mobs, and extreme door buster sales. Here is what I found out.

Thursday, November 25

We arrive on a bitter cold afternoon, the sky a brilliant blue. Downtown consists of a dead strip of diners, taverns, general stores, and gas stations. Most everyone is either out hunting deer or at home eating Thanksgiving dinner. At the north end of town, the low slung Skyline motel, deserted and dark, looks like the kind of place an outlaw in a Coen brothers movie would stay. At the Copps grocery store, I spot a blond woman in a sweat shirt and jeans thumbing through the town newspaper, The Bee.

“See any Black Friday sales advertised in The Bee?” I ask.

She glances up and places a few ads in my hands. “Not much,” she laughs. “Maybe Ace Hardware. You can have these ads. They’re free.”

They’re free. Words to live by. For Phillips is a thrifty town with not much money to spare. Ask someone here what you do for a living, and the answers aren’t always simple. You might hear, “I work at the plastics plant and I fix boats” or “I run a snow plow, I clean motors, and I am a carpenter.” People do what they need to do to get by.

No Walmart here

I thank the woman for the free circulars and drive to our cabin, passing many “Hunters Welcome” signs hung in front of restaurants and shops. For deer hunting season is in full swing here.

I am to learn that during Thanksgiving week, it is the deer hunter, not the Black Friday shopper, who captures the town’s loyalty and interest. The deer hunters in their orange caps live in the woods all day and give to the town’s economy in the evening and early morning. They eat the town’s food, stay in the motels and cabins, and spend money on supplies and gasoline for their trucks. Hunters welcome — you got that right.

So far the only sign of Black Friday is a hastily made sign in front of Troy’s Appliances on Highway 13, which reads “All Week Black Friday Prices.” The sign, written in black marker on orange cardboard, is in sharp contrast to the TV ads we watch in our cabin advertising “sale, sale, sale!” at Kohl’s and JCPenney stores in neighboring counties to the south, and the advertisements from Amazon,com, eBay, DeepDiscount, PetSmart, and many other merchants flooding my email in-box. The ads call to me like sirens, but my family and I resist them as the afternoon turns to dusk and we join more family for a warm dinner, movie, playing in the snow, and reading books.

Will the pace in town pick up on the Friday after Thanksgiving, the busiest shopping day of the year? The ads in The Bee, now tucked away in our cabin, don’t promise much. Ace proudly announces that its doors will open at 7:00 a.m. and offers doorbuster sales like a Char-Broil Patio Bistro Infrared Grill for $99.99 or a Craftsman 12″ tool bag for $9.99.

And that’s about it. In 2007 and 2008, I joined suburban Chicago shoppers at 3:00 a.m. on Black Friday as I blogged about the day. I get the feeling I won’t need to be up at 3:00 a.m. this time.

Friday, November 26

It is 14 degrees outside and snowy when I leave our cabin at just before 7:00 a.m. to make sure I’m at Ace for the doorbuster sale. I sometimes forget that in weather like this you have to give yourself extra time just to get around — time to secure your gloves and hat, time to brew a cup of hot coffee, and time to warm up the car. I’m not sure what I’ll find at Ace — maybe a parking lot full of cars idling in the cold?

At first I think Ace is closed when I arrive. The sign by the highway is dark, and the parking lot is empty save for two 4×4 pick-ups. But I notice a dull yellow glow coming from the store and detect movement inside. So I walk in.

Not much here. Smaller doorbuster items protrude from a bin. Shop-vacs and sleds crowd the walls. I am outnumbered by four employees, two of whom stand waiting at check-out counters, and another two in the back who putter around and curse the cold and wind. You know it’s cold when the locals complain about it.

The clerks nod in my direction in a friendly sort of way, but otherwise everyone here seems resigned to a lonely morning of checking inventory and straightening shelves. When I leave, the parking lot remains a lonely, desolate place.

Black Friday 2010 in Phillips, Wisconsin

I head downtown, where hunters in their orange caps and overalls cluster around parked cars and trucks, dented and rusty. This is their country, and their time. The modest little diners have been plying them with coffee and eggs since earlier this morning before the hunters earn their keep in the frozen woods.

Downtown Phillips, Wisconsin

And not all of them make it back. The Bee carries a cryptic story about a 71-year-old man found November 22 by police officers dead in his tree stand. The cause of death is under investigation. The Bee also displays a front-page picture of a 14-year-old boy covered head to toe in orange camoflage. He smiles proudly as he holds the seven-point buck he claimed on opening weekend. His face is the picture of happiness.

The downtown stores don’t open any earlier than they normally do, but they attract at least a few shoppers poking around. One of my favorite stores in town is Northern Merchandise, which is like a dry good store from the Old West. Here, you can get anything from candy to a “Layin’ Around” chicken egg holder. A wall full of play dolls shares one end of the floor with a pile of table runners, stack of “no hunting” signs, and a George Foreman Grill.

Northern Merchandise window display

At Northern Merchandise, you may find dolls . . .

. . . skulls . . .

. . . and plenty of hot sauce

The clerk is a matronly looking woman in a black turtleneck who speaks with a thick, vaguely Eastern European accent. She eyeballs me while I wander around, decides I’m probably harmless, and putters around behind the counter.

The Northern Merchandise has existed for as long as we’ve been visiting over the years, maybe since the dawn of time. It’s always quiet and nearly empty when I’m here. I sometimes wonder how this place stay in business. The answer probably has to do with the fact that the nearest Walmart is too far away for regular shopping.

I try to snap a few photos of town, but taking my gloves off to operate my camera is about as enjoyable as sticking your hand in an bucket of cold ice in a blizzard. I decide it’s time for a warm-up in Bonnie’s Diner on the south end of town near Copps.

When I walk into the place, I notice eight men clustered in chairs around formica tables. Immediately, eight heads turn and eight faces look my way — tough, crusty, old faces creased with lines, but not hostile. They have the look of regulars having their morning coffee and shooting the breeze. A few wear orange caps.

From behind a bar, I hear a cheerful “Good morning!” and a woman with silvery hair, a black sweater, and blue jeans waves at me. I claim a spot on a ripped plastic bar stool and order a coffee. She has an approachable face.

“So . . . what does everyone do here for Black Friday?” I ask.

Here?” she replies. Nothing.”

She slides a copy of The Bee to me. “Check this out,” she says. “You might find some sales in here, but this is a sleepy town. You here visiting?”

I briefly tell her our story: we’ve been visiting with family for years, and my in-laws have considered Phillips a second home since the 1920s. I tell her I still mourn the closing of the Foytek bakery many years ago.

She smiles and seems pleased that I remember the Foytek bakery. She points behind her. “Mrs. Foytek’s daughter is working in the kitchen here right now.”

A man with a buzz cut who vaguely resembles John Candy stands up to pay for his coffee.

“Hey,” he says to me. “You might want to try Ace.”

Bonnie’s is a small, simple, but clean place that you might expect to find in a northwoods town — besides the formica tables, there are paintings of bear and elk on the white walls and a Bunn coffee machine behind the counter. Bonnie’s is famous for its food and carry-out pies (that northwoods flexibility again). You can pay for one cup of coffee and hang out for as long as you want. On a morning like this, it is not uncommon for customers to leave their cars running to keep warm while their owners relax inside.

The old men lean back in their chairs, and the women hang out on bar stools where they can trade gossip with the waitress who greeted me. The talk is of the best bait for ice fishing, the difficulty of operating a Cat in the heavy snow, and the pros and cons of bow-and-arrow hunting. An off duty waitress reminisces about her childhood adventure with northwoods moonshine (“Strong enough to burn the hair off a wooden leg”).

Happy hunters in Phillips, Wisconsin, 2010

The woman who greeted men obviously knows everyone. She asks a wiry man with wispy grey hair if he still likes to hunt for deer.

“Gave it up,” he replies.

“No!” she says.

“Oh, I never got tired of the hunting,” he says. “It was dragging the poor bastard home, skinning it, cutting it, and plucking all the stray hair out that got pretty annoying.”

He pays his fare, winks at me, and leaves.

One hunter has an update on the 71-year-old who was found dead Monday. Word on the street is that he had expired of a heart attack.

“Best way to go,” he says to no one in particular. “Doing something you love.”

Refuge for hunters

A car accident south of town Wednesday night is also a popular discussion topic. No one knows the entire story. Instead, each of the old men contribute a detail of their own to the mosaic that forms their collective report: two cars on Highway 13 hit head on. A woman was seriously injured. How was she rescued? Oh, the Jaws of Life. Is she OK? Looks like it. And damn, wouldn’t you know that accident closed the highway for a half hour.

Winter harvest in Phillips, Wisconsin, 2010

I realize that I don’t need to go anywhere else today to blog about Black Friday in Phillips. At Bonnie’s, I experience more camaraderie than I ever did hanging out with shoppers in the Chicago suburbs. This is a place where people don’t compare notes on where to find the cheapest flat screen TV. Bonnie’s is a place for growing old together.

In a town where economic hard times are a fact of life, Black Friday is little more than a somewhat amusing joke. Ironically, the residents of Phillips could benefit more than anyone else from the low-priced priced door busters and discounted clothing advertised at Kohl’s. But this part of the northwoods is beyond the reach of larger cities where a critical mass of shopping establishments provides the more well-to-do choices they don’t need.

In Phillips, Wisconsin, people don’t have a lot of material things on Black Friday, but they have each other.

Using social media to build your personal brand

Your personal brand is like your writing style: you have one even if you don’t know it. So you might as well figure out how to develop your brand to your advantage.

Personal branding was the focus of a November 17 Medill Alumni Club meeting in Chicago, where local pundits spent an evening swapping ideas on a panel. The panelists consisted of Hope Bertram, founder of Windy City Social; Adrienne Samuels Gibbs, senior editor, Ebony; Leah Jones, director of customer experience, SpotOn; Kyra Kyles, reporter, Tribune RedEye; Robert Mark, Northwestern University adjunct faculty member and editor, Jetwhine.com; and Cassandra West, social media specialist, Urban Gardener. Here are some take-aways:

  • Before you consider the tools for building your brand, have a strategy (a point stressed repeatedly by Robert Mark). When your co-workers see you in the office and you bump into colleagues at conferences, what do you want to be remembered for? A passion for music? An expert in wine? Expertise in PR? All of the above? And what is your goal? Are you looking for a job? Seeking to raise your profile to get a promotion? Then figure out how to share that brand.
  • Once you sort out your strategy, then share your brand across multiple platforms consistently — and this is where social media tools can be so useful. The content you post on Facebook, LinkedIn, SlideShare, Twitter, etc., should consistently build your brand. In particular, LinkedIn has exploded in popularity for professional networking and content sharing. Haven’t updated your LinkedIn contacts lately? Do so now. (However, Hope Bertram offered a caution on using multiple platforms. In her view, you need to cultivate different voices on different platforms — for instance, your Twitter voice should be distinct from the style of writing you use on your blog if you have one because by its nature Twitter rewards short, punchy bursts of information.)
  • Know the relationship between your professional brand and personal life. If you’ve decided to let professional colleagues have access to a Facebook page your family and friends see, then you’re going to need to post only information that supports your brand — or else divide your professional from your personal lists of friends. For the professional list, post only information that supports your brand. For your personal lists, share whatever you want to share.
  • Contrary to popular wisdom, there is a time and place for anonymity in the social world. For instance, what if you want to branch out into a category of interest that conflicts with your personal brand? The panelists agreed that it makes sense to create a separate Twitter account with an identity completely divorced from yours — akin to a pen name. Adrienne Samuels Gibbs indicated that she enjoys following @blackinformant on Twitter, an anonymous account that shares news about blacks. She speculated that whoever runs @blackinformant must have a good reason to remain anonymous. Perhaps the author or authors are not black. Perhaps the account conflicts with someone’s personal brand otherwise. But the account is useful to her just the same.
  • Don’t lock yourself into a brand that prevents you from growing, in the words of Leah Jones. And ┬áif you do, have the courage to reinvent your brand. Leah discussed how she once killed her Twitter account (not easy to do since it had 7,500 followers) and revived her account as @ChicagoLeah because her old account was confining her brand. (More about her story here.) Two ways to avoid getting “boxed in”: define your strategy first and be discerning about what you want the professional world to know about you.
  • The personal website is far from dead. Use a tool like WordPress to build one — but only if you can do it right. As Leah Jones pointed out, the advantage to your website is that you own it. You don’t have to worry about Twitter failing or Facebook changing its privacy policies. She suggests you view your website as a hub connecting all the places where your brand lives (Facebook, SlideShare, etc.). But a word of caution from Kyra Kyles: “Don’t make a personal website that looks like a MySpace page that ran away from MySpace. Do it right or not at all.”
  • Social media tools should support your brand — not take over your life. If you spend more time maintaining your Twitter account than meeting people in the offline world, something is wrong. If you attend conferences, blog about what you hear, and have no time to network with people who are in the room with you, then something is wrong. Manage the technology, not the other way around.

I found the event to be useful for many reasons, the most important being that I met some cool people. Remembering to put social media in perspective, I took notes for my blog, but I avoided doing a real-time blog (live blogging is difficult when you want to set aside time to talk). And I did not do any live Tweeting (too distracting in this smaller, interactive setting). I stayed focused on the people around me.

Other random tidbits:

  • “Email is useful as a virtual business card but not much more.” (Kyra Kyles)
  • “On your website you can control the story that you want told about you.” (Leah Jones)
  • “Personal recommendations from bosses on LinkedIn is the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen.” (Robert Mark)
  • “LinkedIn recommendations from bosses are not credible. Get your coworkers to write recommendations on LinkedIn.” (Hope Bertram)
  • “Personal branding has its limits. I do not want to see myself defined as a product.” (Cassandra West)
  • “Please put away your personal devices when you are with other people. There’s nothing more rude than looking at your phone when you’re supposed to be making eye contact with someone. That’s bad for your brand.” (Adrienne Samuels Gibbs)
  • “You can kill your brand with social media if you mindlessly Tweet about anything that comes to mind.” (Robert Mark)

Of all the points I heard, the one that resonates the most is the anonymity of social media. Most every social media pundit I know advises against being anonymous in the social world. This is the first panel I’ve attended where anonymity was not only accepted but advocated. What do you think about anonymity in the social world– agree or disagree with the panelists?

Latin American women: the new global power bloc

Dilma

Any business that wants to succeed globally had better respect the power of the Latin American woman.

That message was delivered emphatically in two ways recently:

  • On October 31, Brazil elected its first female president, Dilma Rousseff, reportedly a former left-wing guerrilla who later became an energy secretary in Rio Grande do Sul state. Her election is an important global event in addition to a Latin American one. Brazil is the world’s eighth-largest economy. Companies ranging from Caterpillar to Louis Vuitton have made Brazil a hot destination for global expansion. In her first few days as president-elect, she has vowed to sustain long-term economic growth for Brazil by decreasing the country’s national debt and lower interest rates, which are among the world’s highest — a message characterized as investor friendly and hopefully comforting for multinationals who intend to succeed there.
  • Just days before Ms. Rousseff’s election, my employer Razorfish, with the help of Terra, released a report (The Stampede) asserting that women are the key for multinational CMOs to build relationships with the so-called Classe C working class. This finding is significant because the Classe C population is fueling the growth the hot Latin American economic markets. According to The Sampede (announced on October 26) women are the main purchasers and decision makers in the homes of an increasingly affluent and powerful “new digital middle class” in Latin America, which might surprise executives who assume a patriarchal Latin American society. New digital middle class women are more likely to start their own businesses than men are, and as Razorfish executive Joe Crump told Fast Company, “Seven out of 10 borrowers in micro-lending are women. Online buying is also driven by women. Online, women have access to all the same shops as upper classes,” he explained. “Normally they would be watched by security in the actual shops.”

The Stampede shatters a number of misconceptions about the Classe C population that marketers need to overcome if they want to succeed in Latin America. In Brazil, Classe C constitutes about 100 million residents who “snap up cars, cellphones, and new homes, quickly becoming a prime target for marketers,” according to Advertising Age. Joe Crump, a New Yorker who lives in Brazil part-time, visited the the homes of Classe C residents in Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico, interviewing them about how they live and their media habits.

stampede5

Faces of the new digital middle class

Among his findings: contrary to popular belief, Classe C put digital at the center of their lives. For them, digital provides opportunities to equalize the social and economic playing field in highly class-stratified societies — hence Razorfish renames Classe C the new digital middle class. In Brazil, 63 percent of families with a computer at home are Classe C compared to 23 percent for Class A/B as reported by MediaPost.

stampede4

The Stampede

And as Joe Crump told Fast Company, the new digital middle class “want phones that are smart for their lives. They like phones that look high-end, but have features that suit their lives.” Savvy marketers like Samsung have already caught on to their sophisticated tastes in digital and are aggressively promoting mobile devices to them while less enlightened marketers assume wrongly that Classe C is a culture shaped by television.

stampede3

You had better get to know her better

stampede6

The new marketing power bloc

Whether you call them Classe C or the new digital middle class, this consumer group is going to be influencing businesses around the world for the foreseeable future. The Economist recently noted that Latin American economies will expand again by 5 percent even as many other regional markets only emerge slowly from recessionary conditions. Citigroup released credit card data in July 2010 that showed consumers in Latin Americas increased their spending 15 percent in the second quarter of 2010, while U.S. consumer spending fell 7 percent. And women lead the way.

For more on Latin America and Classe C: